Where are all the CKOs?

Canada lags behind the U.S. in the appointments of chief knowledge officers (CKOs), says an ardent promoter of the position.

“”The Federal Government of Canada, for which I do tremendous amount of knowledge management (KM) consulting, has no CKO. Here we are 2002. There is a three-year

lag already,” according to Nick Bontis, an assistant professor of strategic management at Michael G. DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University and CKO of Knexa.com.

The lag he is referring to is the appointment of Shereen Remez as CKO of the General Administration Services (GSA) in the U.S. in 1999. The GSA serves as a central management agency that sets Federal policy in areas like information resources management and federal procurement.

“Approximately 25 per cent of the companies in the U.S. have CKOs. I would suggest about five per cent in Canada do. I have met or interviewed all of them.”

Not helping matters, he says, is Statistics Canada’s questionable definition of KM. According to the requirements, a company has to fulfil only one of 23 characteristics to be considered a PK practitioner.

“”One of them was e-mail. That is why Stats Canada has 93 per cent participation in KM,” Bontis says.

In hopes of spreading the KM word, Bontis held 20 seminars across Canada in 2001. These sessions were conducted through the aegis of the Institute for Intellectual Capital Research (IICR), of which he is the director, and the Canadian Centre of Management Development. McMaster University was the first Canadian institute to formally include an MBA with minor in KM in September last year. Through these initiatives Bontis says expects many more Canadian institutes roll out KM programs. 

IICR conducted studies across the U.S. and Canada early this year to ascertain the hypothesis that the CKO position would soon be a common place. The institute surveyed 53 executive research firms in the two countries about their perception of CKO placements. Seventy-two percent of the respondents expected CKO searches to increase significantly in the future. Forty-seven stated that CKOs would have to have IT working experience and be placed primarily in high-tech industries.

To date, however, most CKO appointments have been made internally and no search firm was retained to seek a CKO, was one of the findings of the IICR study. As Bontis notes, after all without any formal institute promoting professional standards, it is hard to identify what are the special qualifications required by CKO.

“The layman would assume that knowledge-based industries would have CKOs. That has not been true. In fact very old, traditional industries have knowledge managers. Dofasco has a KM with KM department,”” Bontis says.

A variety of industries have appointed CKOs, from knowledge-based industries high-tech and knowledge based industries like Northern Light Technology, KPMG and the Canada Cancer Society (CCS) to the steel producing companies like Dofacso in Hamilton and the U.S. government.  

The IICR study says that most CKOs were promoted from chief information officer (CIO). Remez, for example, was the CIO of GSA prior to her appointment as its first CKO. In some cases, however, one person will fill both positions.

To be success in the position, CKO must balance the HR and IT demands of the position. Bontis says buying a tool was often the answer for IT problems. There is no such silver bullet for people.

“”The challenge of course is enabling individuals. And that is fundamentally a cultural issue,”” Bontis says.

The Canada Cancer Society’s CKO and CIO Mathew Stern agrees.

“”My job is about technology and I spend my time working with people in that realm. Having said that, the skills that I rely upon — especially in an organization of this size and complexity — are primarily non-technical: relationship, and consensus building, visioning and communication,”” Stern says.

The objective of a CKO is to transform the company into a learning organization, Bontis says. A learning organization as defined by the U.K. management exponent C. Argyris is an organization where every individual is integrated into it through a process of continuous learning, making the organization adaptive and innovative.

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) is taking this appraoch and has established Knowledge Net, with vice-president Bob Hakeem responsible for implementing learning organization principles. To measure effectiveness, every CKO must develop a system of metrics that moves the organization, ideally, through the complete stages outlined by the Japanese co-author of The Knowledge Creating Company, Ikujiro Nonaka: Socialization (tacit-to-tacit transfer of experience and values), externalization (tacit-to-explicit process of learning), combination (explicit-to-explicit codification of knowledge) and internalization (explicit-to-tacit conversion of knowledge to experience).

While Bontis has developed a system of causal relationships to guide senior managers to measure and strategic effective use of KM, Stern takes a more pragmatic approach at the Cancer Society. He says pilot users record related anecdotes that support or contradict assumptions, then user surveys test the gathered information on larger groups, and then demarcates the scope of KM projects with the organizational change strategy.

“”The difficulty in KM, especially in the not-for-profit sector, is finding a pragmatic means of quantifying the impact of its related expenditures,”” says Stern. “Measurements ultimately depend upon the justification for the project in the first place. If a project has specific cost cutting opportunities associated with it, we measure those.”

Stern says his organization is trying to address the growing burden of cancer in an aging population. It drives them to be innovative in the way they use their resources, he says, and in the way they leverage the effort of the staff, volunteers and constituents. Beyond this, he says the key issues are not unique, “Information overload, breaking up organizational silos, fostering knowledge cultures, finding organizational structures that support collaboration and successfully introducing new technologies.” But it is the sheer scope of dealing with affairs pertaining to human endeavours involved in knowledge dependent activities that makes KM one of the most difficult organizational disciplines today.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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